"Mission Impossible?"

Sunday sermon for February 23, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Preached by Carol Ferguson

To say I was excited to receive Matt’s invitation to preach here at Amherst Presbyterian would be an understatement. This was, after all, my church while I was a student at Sweet Briar. That was my seat in the choir freshman year. You were the ones I praised God alongside. And here was the first church service I attended after I heard my call to ministry, six Februaries ago, and watched with new eyes as your pastor led the service, and wondered for the hundredth time that week if this, this thing called ministry, was really what God wanted out of me, and here was where I heard the answer for the hundredth time that yes, God was calling me, and would support me all the way.

So it is quite an honor to join you in worship today, and a double honor to stand in this pulpit and preach. I’ve been looking forward to it since Matt first mentioned I might be able to come. As soon as I knew which Sunday I would be here, I immediately clicked over to the Revised Common Lectionary website, which I have recently and very proudly bookmarked on my internet browser – an important milestone as I make my way from seminary student to minister of the word and sacrament. I scrolled down to see today’s gospel reading: Matthew, part of the Sermon on the Mount.

At which point the bottom promptly dropped out of my stomach. This is heavy-duty stuff.

Every once in a while I will hear someone, usually someone who considers themselves spiritual but not religious, someone trying to show how enlightened they are, say something to this effect: “I don’t really believe Jesus is God, but he did say some really nice things in the Sermon on the Mount.” I don’t know what Sermon on the Mount they’re reading; I have a sneaking suspicion they’ve never gotten past the Beatitudes. Or maybe what we read today sounds good in the abstract, as long as you don’t feel any personal compulsion to follow it yourself.

But if we are going to take any of this seriously, this book we call sacred scripture and this Jesus we call our savior and this faith we call our calling, there’s nothing “nice” about our gospel reading today. These are deep, hard, mission-impossible commands, ones that leave me squirming in my seat whenever I hear them.

*Let somebody hit you as much as they like? * *Hand over your hard-earned belongings to anyone who sues—or even just asks? * *Go the extra mile—literally—for somebody who treats you like a slave? * *Love those who would wish you harm, who would pull the chair out from under you in class, who plot ways to make you look bad in front of the boss or would even bomb your home? * At this point in the reading my hands are sweaty and I’m remembering all too well the guys on the corner I drove past this morning on my way to preach this sermon, the ones with cardboard signs asking for money. And I’m trying to remember the last time I really prayed for my loved ones, much less my enemies. And I’m thinking maybe if I’m very quiet no one will notice the guilt written all over my face.

But then comes the kicker, lemon juice on a binder-full of paper cuts: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

At this point I’m through whimpering and squirming and ready to just throw up my hands and forget the whole enterprise. I thought Jesus came to earth to understand what it was like to be human, with all our failings and frailties! Now he expects us to be perfect, and not just straight-As, white teeth, taxes-done-ahead-of-time perfect but God-perfect?

I am sure I am not the only one in this room who has had to resist the siren song of perfectionism, and I am sure I am not the only one who knows how insidious and destructive the craving to be perfect can be. To see such a command here, in black and white, coming out of the mouth of my beloved Jesus, who ate with traitors and hookers and touched the untouchable, feels like the last straw. If you’re looking for perfect, God, I say as I walk away, you’d better look elsewhere.

But then I remember I’ve made a promise. I’ve made a promise never to give up on this book, no matter how angry or puzzled it makes me. I’ve made a promise never to lose faith that God so loved the world, this corrupt, crying, broken, flailing world, that he sent his only son to live in it and die for it. So I begin again. I go back to that mountain in Galilee. I trust that Jesus is saying something important here, and I do my best to listen with an open heart.

Turn the other cheek. Give to everyone who begs. Love your enemies.

I’ve sometimes heard people claim that these teachings really mean we’re just supposed to be nice to people, but these commands go far beyond mere amiability. I’ve also heard that Jesus is being sneakier than we realize, that he is giving his fellow Jews advice on how to perform nonviolent resistance against their Roman oppressors, a precursor to Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. That may be part of it, but I don’t think that tells the whole story either. And sometimes I hear that turning the other cheek is a way of guilting someone else into recognizing their sins while keeping your own nose clean, and I don’t buy that for a second. The God who dispenses grace so freely, so abundantly to all does not want us to respond only out of guilt.

Sometimes I think we get anxious that religion is just a web of guilt trips, a way to keep us on the straight and narrow by overwhelming us with shame and fear. But God is not a God of shame, not a God of fear, but a God of grace. Grace: God’s constant ability to seek the best of us, to give us space to grow into children of God, to try and fail and try again. So if this passage isn’t about being nice, and it isn’t about making jerks look the jerks they are, what is it about? Is it really just a set of far-flung ideals, ideals that are nice in theory but utterly impracticable in reality? After all, if we followed each of these commands to the letter, God’s beloved children would end up bruised, naked, exhausted, and destitute. This can’t be what God wants for us.

What happens when you turn the other cheek, give more than you’re asked to, pray for those who are always on your case? What happens in that moment when you choose not to strike back or raise your voice or get even?

Grace. Grace happens. The grace that God poured out on you splashes over onto another. The tit-for-tat pauses and becomes something else, maybe a conversation, maybe just time to think, time to breathe. In that moment—that time to make a better choice, a choice that stems from love and not anger—we share the grace that God has flooded our lives with. We stop hoarding that grace, as if God had reserved only a few precious drops for us, and realize that the person we are all prepared to hate or turn away deserves grace as much as we do.

When we pray for someone we can’t stand, we force ourselves to acknowledge that they too were made by God, that there is a chance—however slight it may seem—for the lion to lay down with the lamb, for swords to be beaten into ploughshares, for the kingdom of God to reign on earth.

When you turn the other cheek, you see things differently. You see that God’s power to transform and redeem is greater than the power of a lawyer to demand your coat or a boss to demand your energy. You see that the thread running through God’s expectations of us is not despair for our shortcomings, but hope that we might one day love each other as God loves us.
Because as much as we like to read an “us” and a “them” into this passage—they who strike, we who turn the other cheek, they who ask too much, we who are always the givers, they who are our enemies, we who are the only ones trying to make amends—we know in our hearts that we have been on both sides of the equation.

There’s a verse in this passage that gets overlooked sometimes, because it’s not a command to us, and we’re so busy heaving a sigh of relief that we don’t really hear it: God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

It’s a shocking claim, really, and it goes against all our notions about fairness and justice.

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, not because God is careless, but because God cares more than we can imagine. Because there is no situation so hopeless, so fractured, that God cannot redeem it.

Fair enough, you say. But what about that last verse? The one commanding us to be perfect? Well, this is where two years of Greek at Sweet Briar and another year at seminary come in handy. Looking at the Greek text, I see that the word for perfect is “teleios,” whose root word is “goal.” Literally, it means something like “has fulfilled its ultimate purpose.”

Love your enemies, your neighbors, yourself, and you will fulfill the purpose God set out for you.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a doozie of a command, when you think about how much out there in the world is just plain unlovable, and just how stingy we tend to be with our love. But deep down we’ve always known that love is the name of the game in this thing we call faith, and we have the steady heartbeat of God’s love to help guide us along the way.

Which leads me to my final bit of linguistic showing-off. The verb in this sentence—Be perfect!—can be translated two different ways. The most common way is the command—Be perfect now!”—and that’s not incorrect, but the verb can also be translated as a regular future tense: “You will be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This last sentence is not a threat, not an out-of-reach ideal, not an impossible command. It’s a promise! A promise that we will get there, that we are on a journey that leads towards the peaceful reign of God.

Therefore you will fulfill your purpose to love one another, just as your heavenly Father has already fulfilled his purpose to love you.

Therefore there will be grace enough for all your mistakes, all your anger, all your greed, all your bitterness, as we move forward in this journey we call faith to become God’s perfect children.

God makes no promise that for today following these commands won’t get that other cheek hit too. Sharing grace isn’t easy, and it isn’t “safe”—Christ knows that better than anyone. The promise that God does make is that we, the people God made, the people God saved, can be the seeds for a new way of living, a way that leaves space for healing to happen when things go wrong, a way that doesn’t require us to keep our dukes up all the time, a way that lets us spread the grace we have been so abundantly shown.

In the name of the God who has turned the other cheek to us again, and again, and again, Amen.